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Interviews

Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk: The Man, the Myth, the Music

By Published: February 25, 2010
Robin D.G. Kelley is the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), the already definitive biography that has received rave reviews in the press and is the topic of conversation of Monk fans and musicians everywhere.

Robin D.G. Kelley Author Robin D.G. Kelley



Kelley offers the rich perspective of an African-American historian who knows a great deal about the music, and has researched his subject in depth and detail. Kelley explodes some of the myths about Monk and portrays the man and his music with depth, sensitivity, and circumspection, revealing a brilliant musician and a complex human being with an elusive and ever-changing persona. He documents Monk's sociocultural context and his family life, career, and friendships, clarifying some of the reasons and motives for Monk's actions that were often misunderstood by critics and fans alike. He also takes travels through Monk's compositions, recordings, and live performances, showing his inventiveness and the impact he had on the music of his era and beyond.

Chapter Index

  1. Robin Kelley and the Monk Biography
  2. Monk and His Music
  3. Monk's Role in the Development of Bebop
  4. Monk as a Controversial Personality
  5. Blacks and Whites, Race and Music
  6. Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter
  7. Concluding Thoughts



Robin Kelley and the Monk Biography

AAJ: You are a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California and currently a visiting lecturer at Oxford. How did you get interested in jazz and come to write a biography of Thelonious Monk?

RK: I've been interested in jazz since I was a child. Although I currently live in California, I'm originally from New York, and I took trumpet lessons with Jimmy Owens

Jimmy Owens
Jimmy Owens
b.1943
trumpet
when I was about seven years old. My mother made sure that this music was part of our lives. Later, as a teenager, I began playing piano, never took a lesson, basically self-taught. At one point in my life, I even considered music as a career, but ended up going in a different direction. But I was always engaged with music.



Monk was a favorite of mine since I was about 18 or 19. At the time, I was more interested in trying to play his music than in writing about him. It wasn't until I was already deep into my career as a historian that I could return to jazz not just out of love for it, but as an area of study. I was particularly interested in Monk from that standpoint, because there were so many stories about his behavior and so much confusion about his music. And the stories about his music and his behavior were conflated, and that always disturbed me because anyone who plays his music will know that there is a logic there and a mind that is very deliberate and clear about what he wants to do. So I wanted to demystify Monk, try to explain and understand him as well as his aesthetic and musical intentions. Although, with the final editing of the book, a good deal of the musical analysis was omitted, because the book editors felt it was too technical.

AAJ: I'd like to interject that the book does indeed have a considerable discussion of the music, which is quite astute, but what you're saying is that some of the more sophisticated musical analysis was cut, because it would only be understandable to a few readers. Maybe those segments could go in a music journal. There's a new one entitled Jazz Perspectives edited by Lewis Porter.

RK: Yes, I'm on the editorial board! It's a very good journal, by the way. Many of the leading jazz scholars are connected with it. And I may put some of that more technical stuff about Monk on my website monkbook.com.

AAJ: In my opinion, two of the finest jazz biographies to date are Lewis Porter's of Coltrane and yours of Monk.

RK: Well, thank you very much, because that puts me in good company. I have nothing but praise for Lewis Porter and his work. He's brilliant. And I cite him quite a bit in my own book.

AAJ: As a writer myself, I have a question. I've read many biographies of all kinds, and I've rarely seen one that contained as much information, from so many different sources, and different kinds of sources—letters, record albums, interviews, bootleg recordings, and on and on—and yet you put them together into a very readable narrative. How did you manage this?

RK: I have two answers. One is my training as a historian. Dealing with archives and trying to make sense of all the data, and not over-analyze but try to tell a good story. If I hadn't written seven books before that, I don't think I could have done it. I had lots of practice! Also, I had certain role models. You and I corresponded about John Hope Franklin, who was a professor of yours many years ago. I think Franklin was one of the greatest historians whose footsteps I try to follow in terms of his ability to tell a story, but also to say why it's important.



The second thing was that it took me fourteen years to get this book together! I wrote things in between, but from beginning to end, it took a long time and many drafts. I mean, I had things wrong, and to this day, I'm correcting things in the book that I'm discovering. Small things, nothing big. I can't tell you how difficult it was to write this book, even trying to figure out one day of Monk's life. Sometimes it required effort to figure out something insignificant. I also came across a lot of inaccuracies in the previous writing of others, and at first I began to repeat those mistakes, and then I discovered it wasn't right, and so part of the work involved not only demystifying the man and the myth, but also trying to get the record straight. I can't say I did everything I wanted to do, but if I hadn't invested fourteen years, it wouldn't be the same book, and it wouldn't be satisfying to me.

AAJ: So you immersed yourself in the material for a big chunk of your life.

RK: Basically, to try to walk in someone's footsteps, it was emotionally wrenching, to where sometimes I couldn't get up. It was exhausting.

AAJ: What in particular was emotionally wrenching?

Robin D.G. Kelley / Thelonious MonkRK: The frustration I felt for Monk. It seemed like every single moment he's on the precipice of a great success, turning a corner, and something would knock him down! And to be honest, it wasn't until I really sat down and wrote that I began to see the arc of the story. You start to put things together, and then, boom! He's arrested at the worst possible time. He becomes sick at the worst time, at the point where he's about to make that leap. And then when I began to look at the money, that was totally depressing! Like everyone else, I was convinced that after about 1957, Monk was doing quite well financially. But once you start doing the math, you realize, wait a second, he's still struggling. Even at the height of his powers. And that was hard to take, especially when I identified with him.



On the other hand, there were things that Monk did that don't always make him a likable person. And maybe that's the secret to a good biography. You can identify with the person, but not so much to where you don't see the flaws and the problems. You've got to recognize what it means to be a human being. The man made good and bad choices and decisions, great things and terrible things happened in his life.

AAJ: So you identified with Monk and his struggles and literally hurt for him at times. It seems that many jazz musicians have been ripped off financially. It's one of the tragedies of this music.

RK: Absolutely.


Monk and His Music

AAJ: Which are some of your favorite Monk recordings, and why?

Thelonious Monk Thelonious Monk

RK: Well, I love everything by Monk. I think of Monk's music as a whole body of work. But I'm partial to some of the songs he recorded less frequently, like "Brilliant Corners," for example, or "Gallop's Gallop." These were intricate songs that melodically were unlike anything anyone else was doing. They defy categories. I love those pieces. I also love "Introspection." Harmonically, it's one of those really interesting songs where there's no tonal center. It's incredibly free, and yet there's a clear path he's taking melodically. On the other hand, I also love his interpretations of standards. It's hard not to laugh out loud when you listen to him playing "Nice Work If You Can Get It" or "Darn that Dream." The romanticism is still there, but there's a certain humor as well. One of the great recordings is where he was backing vocalist Kenny "Pancho" Hagood on "I Should Care," with Milt Jackson

Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
1923 - 1999
vibraphone
, where what they do behind the singer is out of this world. So those are some highlights for me, but it's hard to say, because I love everything by Monk.

AAJ: The element of fun, of play, was evident not only in his music, but in every aspect of his life, judging from your book.

RK: Absolutely.

AAJ: Monk often had trouble getting the musicians together and having a good situation to make recordings. Which of his recordings would you say were the best as albums, where everything came together?

RK: That's almost impossible to answer, because there were times when the most difficult conditions came together really well. Brilliant Corners is an example. It was saved in many ways by Orrin Keepnews, who edited several different takes. So here you have a session in which everyone who played on it said it was a disaster! And yet the end result is spectacular. On the other hand, when he got his quartet together, the basic quartet with Charlie Rouse

Charlie Rouse
Charlie Rouse
1924 - 1988
sax, tenor
, with Ben Riley
Ben Riley
Ben Riley
b.1933
drums
or Frankie Dunlop on drums, some of those recordings are really tight and well done. They may not be as exciting as Monk playing at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
, where Griffin is still learning the music. That to me may be more exciting than the quartet playing yet another version of "Blue Monk," let's say five years later. So to me, sometimes when things are not perfect, that's when Monk produces some of the most beautiful music.



I will say this, though. There are songs everyone sleeps on. Monk in his quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales

Larry Gales
Larry Gales
1936 - 1995
bass, acoustic
, and Ben Riley, they do Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
's "I Didn't Know About You," on the Straight, No Chaser LP, it's very uncharacteristic, but it's just perfect! What Charlie Rouse is doing, and everyone in the band is doing is absolutely stunning. But the critics never talk about that recording. Live at the It Club is my favorite live recording with Monk's quartet. Not to say that the Five Spot sessions aren't great, but in Live at the It Club, the whole band is on fire. That's from a time when Monk was struggling with his mental health, and things were not going so well overall, but that recording is just fantastic!

AAJ: You've made me aware that for some jazz recordings, the virtue is their excitement, and for others it is the perfection or in exceptional cases, the innovation.

RK:Right, absolutely.

AAJ: And any or all of those elements can make for a memorable recording. Now, the next question was actually stimulated by a lecture that Lewis Porter gave in Philadelphia on Clifford Brown

Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
. Porter played several different recordings that Brown had made of the song "Cherokee" and showed how the latter's playing matured over the time between the first and last versions. Now with Monk, it's hard for me to tell if his music developed significantly over time, or whether, once he got his groove, he pretty much stayed on the same wavelength through most of his career. Do you have your own take on that?

RK:That's an excellent question, one of the best questions anyone has ever asked me. It may seem strange, but I'm going to say that both are true. Early on, meaning the 1940s, on the Blue Note recordings, he developed an aesthetic for both his compositions and his improvisations, and he pretty much stuck to it through the end. On the other hand, I do think there is a development in his approach that has to do with tempo and the number of notes he would play. If you listen to the Blue Note recordings, as much as I argue that he is not a bebop player as such, that although he contributed to bebop, he really had his own unique approach, he plays a lot of notes, and although the 78 rpm format is short, they're full. Over time, especially later in life, by the end of the '60s, he likes slower tempos, he ends up playing longer solos, partly because of the 33 rpm LP format, but also because he had more to say, and he also is more aware of economy and space. There's less space in those early recordings than there is when we get into the '50s and '60s.

Thelonious MonkThe other thing that happens is that while he did play stride piano in the '40s, he becomes more wedded to stride piano, returning to those old fashioned yet still modern techniques that he grew up playing. My argument is that what he's trying to do is to distinguish himself from the jazz avant-garde. And here is one of the strange ironies. Here's a man whose music helps usher in what becomes free jazz, I mean, Monk is one of their heroes. On the other hand, he didn't like what they were doing. And so he is trying to remind listeners, this is what it means to swing. This is where I come from. I'm not Ornette Coleman, I'm Thelonious Monk. So he records more solo pieces, more solo LPs. It's not producers asking him to do it; he wants to do it. He wants more solo pieces. He wants to slow the tempos down. He wants to remind listeners of those great pianists of the past.

AAJ: Monk was profoundly steeped in tradition. And also, his sense of rhythm was the greatest in the history of jazz. He did his own flip with the rhythm. Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
1924 - 1977
sax, alto
said, "Monk plays at an angle. And it's the right angle." I imagine he got that angle from the stride pianists but made it uniquely his own.

RK:That's very astute, because most critics and commentators who were contemporaries of Monk talked about his harmony. But it's his rhythm which distinguished him from so many other players. And if you read the interviews of those who performed with Monk, most of what they learned from him wasn't about harmony, but about rhythm. He had a way of swinging that was unique. And he never lost his place rhythmically. He was always right there.

AAJ: He could even come back to the piano after going off stage, and just hit the piano right on cue.

RK:Exactly. Even before he sat down, he hit that note!


Monk's Role in the Development of Bebop

AAJ: Let me ask you a theoretical question. I'm very interested in the transition from swing to bebop that occurred in the 1940s. You quote Teo Macero as saying about Monk: "He, along with Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, has shaped American jazz to what it is today." While I totally enjoy Monk's playing and his compositions, it remains difficult for me to say exactly how he did influence the jazz scene as a whole. In particular, Monk claimed that he was one of the innovators of bebop. In fact, in your book, you state that Monk wrote a song called "Bip Bop" from which the phrase "bebop" developed. Yet to me his music is unique and so different from bebop. Where does he fit into the overall history and legacy of jazz? The subtitle of your book is "The Life and Times of an American Original," which implies that he stands outside rather than being a part of the jazz evolution of his time.

Thelonious Monk with Charlie Parker

RK: I think there are two things going on. One is that when Monk claims that he originated bebop, on some basic level he's trying to make a name for himself so that he could get work! In 1948 especially, when he hadn't had his moment in the sun, he's trying to remind people, and this was his livelihood at stake, that, "Don't keep lookin' at Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, and Bird, and Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
, who I trained, but look at me, because I basically was there at the get-go." So part of it is that he's trying to make a case for himself and why he should get gigs.



But the other part is that while his contribution is not direct and no one directly adopts his style, it is true that whenever any artist was trying to learn how to play on extended chords and harmonies, and how to voice chords differently, and more generally how to get past the more traditional voicings, they all came to Monk. And Monk showed them something. Dizzy took from Monk, and though there's no way Dizzy sounds like Monk, but he learned a lot about voicing from him. So I think theoretically, Monk made a huge contribution not so much by people mimicking him, but by people coming to him and sharing ideas. And Monk always talked about how frustrated he was that he didn't get credit for sitting down with Dizzy, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron

Tadd Dameron
Tadd Dameron
1917 - 1965
arranger
, and that's where I think Monk did make a contribution, but it's not as visible. In those recordings they made for Norman Granz, in 1950, you had Monk at the piano, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
drums
, and they're radically different.

AAJ: That clarifies a great deal for me, and maybe your book will change our perspective on Monk in the context of bebop. You're saying that Monk played a major role by teaching his cohorts new harmonic ideas. So, where did Monk get his notions of harmony?

RK:That may be more speculation than anything else. I think there were several forces. First, he did have classical training. Monk liked the Russian composers, and he also liked the French composers like Chopin, and he liked the late 19th-century French Impressionist composers who were using whole tone scales, for example. And Monk had a fascination with whole tones. My theory is that he figured it out from playing that music, and he wasn't the only one, by the way, who did that.

AAJ: But he did it differently from some of the others.

RK: Coleman Hawkins used whole tones. So the classical composers are one source. Another source came from the stride pianists he hung out with, like Willie "The Lion" Smith

Willie
Willie "The Lion" Smith
1897 - 1973
piano
and James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
piano
and Clarence Profit. If you do a very careful study of these pianists' recordings, you can hear a lot of the dissonance that we associate with Monk. You can hear it in the passing chords, where Johnson would bend notes, and hit a minor second. They were already doing that stuff, they just didn't do it all the time like Monk did.



And there's another pianist who is wholly underrated, and Monk loved him, and that's Herman Chittison

. He was doing some of that stuff. Chittison had a fluidity that Monk wasn't that interested in. But he had some of the harmonic ideas that Monk built on. So I think some of that stuff was in the air, and Monk in his own mind was able to synthesize it at the piano, and think about things that no one else was able to think about. So many of his ideas come from his solitude and focus, and the fact that he could sit at the piano for hours on hours and figure things out like a scientist.

AAJ: One could say that he was a Buddhist "Monk." He had an aspect of what they call "mindfulness."

RK:Absolutely.


Monk as a Controversial Personality

AAJ: Your book is special in the thoroughness with which you bring in the world that surrounded Monk. For one thing, Monk almost had a dual personality. In your book, one comes across these two personae repeatedly. One is Thelonious as a sincere, straight-ahead, even brilliant man and musician, extremely accomplished, adored by many. On the other hand, there are times when he appears an eccentric, out of touch, mentally ill, addicted, unreliable, erratic, and impulsive individual. Now, he did have a major mental illness. You point out that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic-depression). So my question is, how do you reconcile these two sides of Monk? Would you say that he had a split (Jekyll-Hyde) personality, flipping from one side to the other? Or do you think that the two sides overlap in some way? Or do you think that some of this portrayal of Monk is really a distortion, resulting perhaps from the way jazz musicians are erroneously portrayed, or even the stereotype of the "Negro" male as inadequate and comical?

RK: Each exhibition of Monk's behavior has to be seen in context. So there are some cases where what appears to be eccentric behavior is really performance on his part. And not just on stage, but in other situations as well. He reveled in attention. Sometimes he'll do something for humorous effect. So sometimes a journalist or a writer or an observer would take this humorous effect and stamp it as "crazy." In other cases, his behavior really is a manifestation of his bipolar episodes. I say episodes because the bipolar condition is not constant. But it's not that he is sane and then suddenly goes crazy. People sort of know when he's about to go into an episode. His manager, his wife, they all knew. And so sometimes it's his mental illness.



Other times, he does things which to me make perfect sense. I'll give you two examples from the book. One is where he's playing a gig, and the pedal posts of the piano are just falling apart. So he reaches down to pull the whole mechanism out. That gets described as "This man's crazy—look at him tearing up the piano!" But in fact, he's trying to get the broken part out of the way. So Monk's behavior is impulsive, but it's logical. Similarly, he's posing for his painting for the cover of Time Magazine, and he keeps falling asleep! So the artist, Boris Chaliapin, says, "Well, this guy's really eccentric—he's falling asleep while I'm painting him." But if you know his schedule at the time, of course, he's falling asleep. He hasn't been able to sleep in days!



So, in context, some things really are manifestations of his mental illness, some things are his sense of humor. Though he was a mature man, there was a mischievous boy inside of him. He would play tricks on people. He would talk about you badly to your face. He would make people laugh by doing funny things. He would revel in that. So the final example is in the film Straight, No Chaser, and the camera is on him when he's at the airport spinning around. Everyone says, there goes Monk spinning around in the middle of an airport, the man's crazy. But I know from talking with the filmmaker that Monk set it up that way for the camera—he wanted to be funny. Monk is the consummate performer. And he leans over toward the camera lens—he knows he's on film. And so that's the Monk mystique, and Monk himself is partly responsible for it.

AAJ: He partly created that image of himself, and there were also some misattributions by others as well. It was "both, and" rather than "either, or."

RK: Exactly, and it was entertaining. It was fun for him.

AAJ: That rotating, circular movement that he did. I thought perhaps he had a disorder like Tourette's syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder, both of which can involve stereotypical movements. But you seem to be suggesting that it was pure theatrics on his part.

RK: It was an act, but it was an act that comes out of a much older African American tradition, namely the "Ring-Shout." See, he traveled with an evangelist for over two years. And so what he saw, in addition to faith healing, were the people doing an old African dance that became very important in black Christian circles, and that's the "Ring-Shout." I'm not the first one to stay that. The historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out that Monk was doing the "Ring-Shout." Monk saw certain dance moves that he was mimicking.

Thelonious MonkInterestingly, I never met a musician who played with Monk who said that the dance was weird or strange. They all say that the dance was his way of conducting the band, setting the tempo, showing where the accents were. And he used his body in some ways to give you that. I've studied so many films of Monk, and where he puts the accents, it's not always between the two and the four, but sometimes he'll put the accent on what is essentially the one beat of the next measure, but in his mind it's the fifth beat of an extended measure, and so sometimes, in the mood of the music, he embodies that understanding. In one of my favorite moments in the book, the French horn player in his big band, Robert Northern, cannot figure out how to play a particular passage, and he's struggling with the rhythm, and so Monk takes him in a corner during a break, and he taps it out, dances the whole rhythm for him, and he gets it right away!

AAJ: Your book suggests that Monk was a remarkable teacher and mentor. Whereas most leaders come in with arrangements and charts, it was as if Monk taught in the traditional way of a tribesman. He taught by example and learning by ear. He would teach one on one, and now you're pointing out how he used his body to convey his ideas, to get across his rhythmic changes and so on. And he would be provocative sometimes. Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
mentioned how they would all go over to Monk's apartment and hang out to learn from him.


Blacks and Whites, Race and Music

AAJ: To change the topic, you, as a historian, must think about how the African American musician is perceived in society—how that has changed, yet how there are still elements of racism in our society.

Thelonious Monk

RK: It's not just white perceptions, but even those of African Americans themselves, who would believe certain things about black jazz musicians or about Monk in particular. And there's no question that racism had an impact across the board, even on white musicians. White musicians at the time were not listened to carefully enough. There's no question that Monk sometimes took a ribbing for hiring white musicians in his band. But the good news is that once you get inside the world of jazz, racism is not what defines their relationships. It's about whether you can play. And that's something that Monk always insisted upon. His thing was that color isn't going to define what I do and who I hire. In that respect, he was something of a rebel, but he was still very much rooted in the culture of jazz that puts a premium on whether you can play or not.



And that's why Monk really liked Scott LaFaro

Scott LaFaro
Scott LaFaro
1936 - 1961
bass
and Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
, for example. He probably would have kept them as permanent members of his band if they hadn't gone with Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
. He really liked Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
b.1931
sax, alto
and continued to use him in his big bands, because Phil Woods could swing. At the same time, the truth of the matter is that for a lot of black musicians, arrest and institutionalization were more common than for others, for the same or similar behaviors. But that's not about jazz, that's about the police! But here's a final example of how racism affects everybody: jazz was not as lucrative in those days as playing modern concert music, and because jazz was associated with black bodies, white musicians for the most part weren't getting paid well, either! Of course there were Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
and Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, but for the most part if you chose to play this music, you were not going to make money. So it's not like the white musicians were making money and black musicians were not. Nobody was making money!

AAJ: That's still true today!

RK: Exactly. And part of it is the way the music has been evaluated. Do you know what it means that six nights a week, you've got to go out and make original music every gig?

AAJ: I think that in some ways it's harder to be a really fine jazz musician than to be an equally fine classical musician. Because it derives in part from popular culture, there's a certain devaluation of jazz. I've heard classical musicians make derogatory comments about jazz, but I think it was Peter Nero who said, "That's because they can't play it!" Jazz players are among the best musicians of any kind, but there's a misunderstanding about the serious aspect of jazz music.




Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter

AAJ: Now, one of the key figures of jazz at that time was not herself a musician, namely, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. We know about her helping out Charlie Parker, who tragically passed away in her apartment, and in your book you elaborate that she was a member of the wealthy Rothschild family, who rejected her, and how close she was to Monk, who would even go to her home to practice and wrote "Pannonica," the song about her. But it's hard to get a take on whether she was a serious lover of jazz and helped the musicians, or whether she was a sort of eccentric jazz groupie, who hung out with them for her own selfish motives. Did you get a feeling about her personality and her motivation?

Thelonious MonkRK: Yes, I did, and by the way, there's a book coming out next year, the first biography of Nica, by David Kasdin. He's been working on it for a long time, and it should be very good. She has gotten a bad rap, because she hung out with a lot of musicians, but she saw herself as a friend and a resource. She spent a lot of time helping musicians like Sonny Clark

Sonny Clark
Sonny Clark
1931 - 1963
piano
detox from drugs. She'd pick up musicians she knew from parks and street corners. She'd have them stay with her to clean them up. She did what Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
1910 - 1981
piano
was trying to do as well, but without the religious connotations. She managed Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
for a while, and she really was knowledgeable about the music. So many times, when Monk was out on the West Coast, or he needed a drummer or bassist, he'd call Nica, and she would know who to call, because she knew who the great musicians were. Monk didn't always agree with Nica, but he trusted her ear and he trusted her decisions. So she put her money and her mouth on the line when it came to supporting the music.



Was she eccentric? Sure, and strange in some ways. She paid a price, in that her commitment to the music led to her divorce, to being cut off financially from the greatest wealth she should have gotten from her family. There were times when she didn't have any money, and Monk loaned her money. She was a very important figure in this music. But she made some bad choices. Her doctor, Robert Freymann, to whom she referred Monk, was terrible. She didn't know that he was giving his patients amphetamines under the guise of vitamin shots. She learned that later. She was taking them as well. But for the most part, she had good intentions, and she was very knowledgeable.

AAJ: From that assessment, she comes out looking pretty good. She stood outside the norm, but she genuinely cared about the music and the musicians and was of great service to them.


Concluding Thoughts

AAJ: Were there things you learned about Monk that you didn't include in the book?

T.S. Monk

RK: Well, there are so many things. The first draft of the manuscript was 2,500 pages! Most of what got cut were not things about Monk, but about people around Monk. There are great stories about his family—he was very close to them. And it's interesting how many people take credit for Monk's success, whether it's producers or friends, but his anchor was his family, both his wife, Nellie's, family and his own. So, if anything, many of their stories were cut out.

AAJ: But the book beautifully conveys his family life, which was marvelous, and what a loving person Monk was.

RK: Yes, and as a father, he was really ahead of his time. Imagine, it's the 1950s, and you don't believe in corporal punishment, and you believe in helping kids to make decisions for themselves so they can be who they really are. And he succeeded as a parent. His kids turned out well and they became very interesting people.

AAJ: Monk had a genius about many things in addition to music. Am I correct that "Tootie" is the musician T.S. Monk, Jr.?

RK: Yes, and to be precise, he is T.S. Monk

T.S. Monk
T.S. Monk
b.1949
drums
.

AAJ: So—about yourself. You've published this monumental, definitive biography of Monk, a beautiful work, and you have many other accomplishments as well. Where do you see yourself going in the future?

RK: Right now I'm finishing up a couple of other books. One is a short book about jazz and modern Africa in the '50s and early '60s, from a series of lectures I gave at Harvard. It's called Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa, and that should be the end of it in terms of writing about music. I'm also working on another textbook on African American history, obviously not to replace John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom. Two other authors and myself are trying to do something different. And I'm looking at some other projects. But I'm still trying to recover from Monk! That book really wore me out!

AAJ: And you've implied in many ways that you were profoundly changed by writing that book.

RK: Oh, no question about it! One thing I should have said earlier is that I learned from Monk even about writing the book. Like, don't be convoluted. Speak plainly. Make the point. Be succinct. Monk tended to play short phrases, and I tried to match them with short sentences that are direct.

AAJ: Well, I'd say you achieved your goal. The book is tremendous reading. I couldn't put it down! One final question. Were you involved in the civil rights movement?

RK: No. I'm after that time. I'm on the young side. I'm 47. My daughter thinks I'm old! [Laughter.] I came of age politically in the late 1970s, with the peace movement, anti-colonialism in Southern Africa, anti-apartheid. That's sort of my era.

AAJ: I'm 20 years older than you. I'm a white guy, but I was in DC for King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I also remember seeing Monk at the Five Spot back then, although your book made me wonder whether it was the first or second location of the club. But you're African American, you've been through your own trip, yet you need to remain a historian, an independent observer. Given all that, how would you sum up your experience with Monk, with the music, and the culture in which we live?

RK: I think there are two things that Monk literally taught me directly about living in the now. One is that you should never be afraid of the truth. Whether or not he offended you, he always told you the truth. Even his manager said that in the whole time they worked together, only once did he catch Monk in a little lie. Otherwise, he was always going to speak truth no matter what the consequences were. More of that would certainly make our lives a lot better. The second thing is that Monk taught me the importance of slowing down. We live in a culture now that is built on sound bites. People don't even want to read a book from cover to cover—they'll go to the index to find out what they want to read about. Because in this computer world, it's Google, it's surfing, fishing for the little things, but not seeing the big picture. And Monk's whole thing was, look, slow down. Learn one bar at a time. Play the whole song. Don't skip the melody to go to the improvisation. Know the song. With Monk, there were no sound bites. Every moment in life was electric, and he made sure that we understood that. And so now, in my own life, in my writing, in my politics, I have to slow down and look at the big picture, and make sure that the whole story is told.


Reviews of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original at All About Jazz:

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Robin D.G. Kelley

All Other Photos: Courtesy of The Official Thelonious Monk Website



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